SURVIVOR GUILT

Well, I guess that it is about time that I addressed this issue.  Much has been written about PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and it is a worthy subject of discussion and a real situation.  The mental agony cannot be ignored even after attending to any physical injuries.  Even if there wasn’t  physical injury, there are still issues that manifest themselves after the fact.  During World Wars I & II (isn’t it a shame that we have to number world wars?) soldiers were diagnosed with “Shell Shock,” or “Battle Fatigue.”

Survivor Guild is that gut wrenching pain you get when the fellow next to you “buys it” and you don’t.  Why him and not me?  This too can be a life changing situation.  All too often it become a cross that one bears, and tries to reconcile for the rest of their life.   But the feeling extends beyond that instance.  Serving with “boots on the ground” in ‘Nam, I had relatively safe duty.  Still, there were situations with which we had to deal.  Surviving them, although much different from that of the combatant seeing the man next to him die, still leaves an impression, and a question.  How did I get through this?

I know, but in a gentler way.

Waaaay back in 1964 I tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy.  I wanted to be a member of the Underwater Demolition Teams!  These were the men who “swam for a sneak and a peak, made a bam then scrammed!”  Read the book or see the movie “Up Periscope” if you are not familiar with this group.  Failing the physical examination I settled for a civilian career.  Oh, the recruiter assured me that he knew someone who could “get me in,” but I realized that if that actually happened, I could not possible make it through UDT school.  The modern counterpart would be The SEALs.

I was classified as “1Y,” which basically meant that if the enemy were coming ashore on the East Coast, they would call on me, after the women and children were called to duty!  We called “1Y” the “Life Boat Division!”  Women and Children first!

My new motto was “get a job, get a car, get a girl!”

Yes, General Motors Assembly Division as a Clerk Typist in Plant Security.  Yes, a 1965 Chevrolet Malibu Super Sport, maroon.  Yes, Mary Ann.

Pretty funny how things changed when the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia got hot.

I was reclassified into the category “1A.”  Oh, I did not have to go back to Fort Holabird for another physical, but I was upgraded by mail!  I went to my local Draft Board and asked just what this meant.  I was told that I would be getting my draft notice within a month, probably with the next mailing.

I did some research.  The local newspaper printed a daily report of the deaths of our servicemen in Vietnam.  It did not take too much intelligence to see that the death rate for enlisted men in the Army and the Marines was a lot higher than the death rate for enlisted men in the Air Force or the Navy.  Basically, officers in the Air Force flew the planes that were being shot down.  I took it to mean that if I were in the Air Force, and in Vietnam, my chances of survival would be greater than if I were in the Army.  Marines were not even a consideration, and my previous experience with a Navy recruiter soured me on that course.

When someone asks why I joined the Air Force, the trite answer is “I scored high enough on the entrance exams to have a choice.”  All well and good, but basically, I don’t like camping.  I also am not an “outdoorsy” person.  I also don’t like the idea of combat.  I’m not a Conscientious Objector, I just don’t want someone trying to kill me on a one to one basis.

So I ended up in the Air Force, and my first assignment was Keesler AFB, Biloxi, Mississippi.  Word there was that it was the place you would spend your entire enlistment.  It was a training base, and seemed like a safe haven.  Except for hurricanes.   Like Hurricane Camille.  That’ll be another post.

Getting through that was one thing, but then I got my orders to Vietnam.  When my Mother heard about that, she was so shocked that she lost her voice for about a week.  There was little consolation in the fact that for every front line soldier there had to be at least six of us “in the rear” supporting his effort.

I was assigned to a Photo Processing and Intelligence Facility at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Republic of Vietnam.  RF-4C Phantoms flew photo recon missions and I was part of the team on the ground processing and handling the film and prints.   Our Main Gate opened up to Saigon itself.    Seemed like a pretty safe place to work.

Except for the possibility of “Sappers” leaving satchel charges under the photo trailers, which were elevated off the ground.  These trailers were elevated to assure that they were level since the ground may have been uncertain and the chemistry used inside for film and print processing had to be level.  Before our shift started we were all mustered around the trailers to “clean up the area.”

Except for the fact that snipers were known to take out anyone in uniform once they ventured off the base, especially officers.  I have a story for that, too!  See the post “Airman of the Quarter!”

Except for the fact that even common items found could be booby-trapped.  Zippo lighters could be loaded with an ounce of C-4 explosive.  Enough to take out the fellow lighting a smoke and the person nearest him.

Except for the disgruntled Vietnamese Soldier, crippled and unable to support himself and/or his family who decides to kill himself and some Americans by walking into a crowded bar and pulling the pin on a concealed hand grenade.  Yes, this happened.  I was there.

Except for the willing bar girl, knowing that she had a venereal disease, who would willingly pass that along to a serviceman.  Result, a person off duty until the appropriate drug was administered and to take affect.  Time taken from medical personnel and time lost to a duty station during this conflict.

Except for the unattended Jeep outside of a bar that was found to have explosives placed so that when the key was turned…Thankfully one of those bar girls told me to get off the balcony before something happened.  The men from Explosive Ordinance arrived and neutralized that threat.

Does any of this fall under the heading of Survivor Guilt?  Maybe not, but still I wonder what would have happened “if?”  If any of these things happened to someone I knew.  Some of these did happened to people I knew.  At least one happened to me.  Survivor Guilt.  So complex a subject.  So lingering in my mind.  Not just for combat troops, but also for us REMFs!

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ALERT PHOTOGRAPHER

Strategic Air Command!  Malmstrom Air Force Base, Great Falls, Montana.  If there is a colder place I’ve not been there.  Maybe it is because my last assignment was Tan Son Nhut, Vietnam.  There the weather was consistent…..ninety five degrees and ninety five percent humidity.

The SAC motto is “Peace is Our Profession” and this is proudly posted at the Main Gate.  Well, while this base alone controlled more than a few (dozen, maybe a score or more) missile silos scattered around the farmlands of Montana, it certainly would seem that peace keeping would be a case of just carrying a bigger stick than anyone else.  Oh, this wasn’t the only Minuteman III site, not to mention the other types of missiles we have in our arsenal.

I’m talking about silos that contained Minuteman III missiles, each carrying three independently targeted nuclear warheads.  Launch just one, and you are going to make three sites over there have a really bad day.

To give you an idea of how serious this base was, if you wanted to have your own car on the base, it could not have a Peace Sticker on it!  For those that do not know, the Peace Symbol is based on Semaphore Signal Code.  That alphabet is communicated by one person holding two flags.  Each position representing a different letter of the alphabet.  Straight up and down is the letter “D” and two flags in an inverted “V” represents the letter “N.” Superimpose those two and surround them with a circle and you have the figure of the Peace Symbol, which has become to mean “Nuclear Disarmament!”

One of my senior non-commissioned officers told me that as far as he was concerned, the Peace Symbol was “the pecker tracks of the American chicken.”  This is from a man with whom I served both in Vietnam and in England!

Back to the story.  At Malmstrom AFB there was a Base Photo Lab, where I was assigned as a Still Photo Specialist.  We handled all the usual photo assignments from Officer Portraits to auto accidents.  Not as glamorous as the photo recon work I helped with in Vietnam and later in England, but it was good duty.

Except for being tagged as “Alert Photographer!” We worked a five day week, but one photographer had to be in the Photo Lab after hours and during the weekend, Friday evening until Monday morning, in case of an emergency.  This was to cover the need to complete any unfinished work orders of the day or to photograph such things as auto accidents, in-flight emergencies, or such.  Oh, I did cover an in-flight emergency landing, but it isn’t as good a story as the one coming!

The Lab had a room set up as an apartment for the “alert photographer.”  Nothing fancy, just a small room with a bed and a small refrigerator, and the ubiquitous coffee pot!  During daylight duty hours, this was also our Break Room.  If you wanted to go to the Chow Hall, you had to call Base Security and let them know where you were.  this was way before cell phones, even pagers or beepers!  If you wanted to go to Church on Sunday or to the movie on base, you just prayed that they would not have to interrupt the Service or the movie to broadcast, “Is the Alert Photographer present?”  That, too, happened once.  Luckily the movie “The viking Queen” was not one I hated walking out on!

One night, about 2200 hours, while settling down in that little room, I got the call.

Phone rings.  “Base Photo Lab, Sergeant Wujek responding, Sir!”

“This is Major K———-, Air Police.  Get your gear together.  We’re going out to a missile silo.  Car will be at your location in fifteen minutes.”

Oh shit.  This is circa 1971.  What does this mean to me, the photographer on duty?  Montana is very dark at night, and very cold.  Besides my parka, what else should I take?  The usual photo gear was already packed.  Camera and extra film, flash bulbs, and of the course the strobe flash!  I decided against taking the “flash bombs” which had the power to light up a football field, since time was short.

But what happened out there?

Did someone try to enter the silo, which while not exactly hidden was surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire.

Was there a malfunction, possibly causing the blast door to be opened?  Hey, that is a thirty ton steel reinforced concrete slab that is only supposed to open by a blast of compressed air upon a launch signal.

Noting was said about radiation, so I can leave that stuff behind.

The Air Police station wagon is at the front of the Photo Lab.  I secure the Lab and approach the wagon with my gear.  The Air Police Major himself is driving.  Oh Hell, this cannot be good.

I load my gear into the back of the wagon and sit in the back seat.  The Major tells me that we have one stop to make along the way.  We are headed into “Officer Country” and pull up in front of the Commander’s Residence.  Colonel Gerald Fall was our Commander.  This man started his military career as a Private in the Army during WWII.  He earned his wings in the Army and later transferred to the Air Force.  I won’t list all of his accomplishments, they are public knowledge, but let it be known that this is not the type of man with whom to trifle.

Colonel Fall, along with his pet German shepherd, approach the wagon and get settled inside.  I’m sharing the back seat of a station wagon with the biggest German shepherd I’ve ever seen!

this is looking wore and worse as we progress out of the Base and into the total darkness of a Montana night.

We arrive at silo number “G-2.”

The Colonel tells the Major to call the Command Post and have two Security Officers join us.  Colonel Fall seems to be looking at his watch a lot.  Time seems to be an issue.

I look around, and all seems normal.  The fence is secure, no obvious damage to the gate or the silo itself.  What the, hmmm, am I doing here?

While waiting, the Colonel picks up a stone from the driveway and lets his pet smell it.  Tossing it into the total darkness of that night, he tells his pooch to “find it!”

Off into the night runs this dog.  Returning shortly with a rock.  Our intrepid Bird Colonel looks at it and tells the dog, “wrong!”  Off he goes again into the pitch dark blackness.  When he returns, the Colonel seems satisfied.

At this time two Air Police Security Officers arrive, M-16s slung over their shoulders, ready for whatever is about to happen.  They appear to be as clueless as I at this point.

I’m about ready to photograph what may be an important event in my career as an Air force Photographer, maybe even better than the photo I snapped of Spiro Agnew touring Biloxi Mississippi after Hurricane Camille!

The colonel positions himself along with the two Air Policemen, and his dog, in fron of the gate of the silo marked “G-2.”  I’m told where to stand.  My camera is ready, the electronic strobe is charged and ready.  History is about to be made!

I am so jazzed at this point I don’t know whether to (nasty expression follows) shit or go blind!

From his pocket the Colonel pulls out two single stars and hands one to each of the Air Policemen.  He tells them to pin those stars onto his epaulets.  This is the exact moment when the Full Bird Colonel becomes a Brigadier General.  At the stroke of Midnight the Colonel is now a Brigadier General!  In the photo, which I took, his dog is shaking his hand and two enlisted Air Policemen are pinning stars onto his shoulders.

General Fall pulls some currency out of his pocket and as called for by tradition, tips the men who pinned on his stars.  If he paid me enough I’d pin stars on his underwear!

On the way back to Base, the General tells me that he wants 8 X 10 glossies of the photos on his desk first thing in the morning.

So I’m back at the Lab, colder than a (bad expression follows) witch’s tit, and I have to process film and make prints before 0900 hours.  Of course I have called my NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge) of the Lab and advised him of what has transpired.  All by myself in the Lab, I check the chemistry and the temps are right.  This is long before digital photography, and we have to wet process the film, wait for it to dry, then make enlargements on paper that had to be wet processed and dried.

At this point my NCOIC arrived at the Lab, and I brought him up to speed on the events of the evening.

He and I drive to the General’s Office and meet the P.I.O. (Public Information Officer), a Captain, before we present the photos.

We’re sitting outside of the General’s office, and the door is open so we can hear what is going on.

The General is excited about his promotion, and that the photos will make the next edition of “The Air Force Times,” “Star & Stripes,” and the local newspapers.  Quite the human interest story.  Promotion documented at the very moment it happened.  The man’s pet German shepherd shaking the General’s hand, and two Air Policemen flanking him.  The silo sign “G-2” visible, also.

The Captain, who looked like a very milquetoast person, listened intently and looked at the photographs (each one stamped on the back “Photo by Phil Wujek”) and basically said that this was the dumbest idea he had ever come across!

My NCOIC looked over at me and indicated with a nod of his head that he and I should very quietly leave the office!

Below is a portrait of General Fall.  I invite you to Google his name and you’ll find a very fine article about this gentlemen.  I am proud to have served under his command.

                             BG GERALD G FALL JR

Lieutenant Nancy!

Sometimes, between missions, the folks from the “Interpretation Shelter” would mingle with us Photo Processing types in the break shelter of the Photographic Processing and Interpretation Facility, commonly know as the “PPIF,” or vulgarly, “Piff on It!”

On one of these days, Lieutenant Nancy (last name withheld for the usual reasons, but if she reads this, please respond!) from the Interpretation Section was drinking a cup of coffee with us Enlisted Types, and complained that there was absolutely nothing for a woman to do after hours in all of Saigon.  Everything was oriented for the male servicemen.  Bars, Massage Parlors, Places for a “quickee,” and the ilk.  I have no idea where she came up with that notion!

Now let me say this.  Lieutenant Nancy was about five foot two, had short blonde hair, and blue-grey eyes.  She was so cute that it hurt!  Basically, enlisted men outnumbered officers by a great margin, and it was strictly forbidden for enlisted men to “fraternize with officers!”  Realize that as bad as a tour of duty was in Vietnam, a stint in Leavenworth was even worse, and that is where you’d end up if a court-martial went against you!

Anyway, as soon as she said this, most of us “stripers” disagreed!  Heck, there was a lot for people to do in Saigon besides the wild stuff that she had obviously heard from some other, undisclosed, people.

We saw it as our duty as red blooded American lads to prove it to her that a good time could be had in “The Pearl of The Orient, or “The Paris of the Orient,” depending on which travel agent to whom you were talking.

Since everyday in Saigon was the same, we told her that we’d take her on a group date to prove that a good time could be had without engaging in the wild times she had associated with this town.

After our shift ended, we changed out of our jungle fatigues into our 1505s khakis (or chinos) for the older folk and headed for the Main Gate and piled into a Hop-Tac to head for our first stop.

This was a restaurant whose card read “ThieaThai, Bo 7 Mon Dac Biet.” it was located at 246 Nguyen-huynh-Duc-Phu-Nhuan. This was a really neat place.  It served a dinner that was basically “beef, seven ways!”  I cannot remember all the ways, but one way was to grill your slices of beef on a flat stone atop a brazier of coal on the center of the table.  Another variation was when they replaced the stone with a small cauldron of vinegar, in which you cooked your slices of beef in the boiling vinegar.  These slices were then wrapped in lettuce and other sliced vegetables.  A small cooked steak was another variation, and the rest have long left my memory.  Of course, drinks were served!

From there we traveled to “The Ocean!”  Their business card claimed “We are sure you will find it a pleasant experience we have good music charming hostesses, and low prices.”  They closed at 6:00 p.m., so after a drink, we headed to another venue, whose name I’ve long forgotten, but….they had a Magic Show!

The fellow on the stage was a magician from the Old Days!  Complete with Top Hat!  He did the usual stuff you’d expect, rabbits from hats and magic wands that became flowers.  Then they wheeled out the guillotine!  Okay, this was a full size French Revolution guillotine!  There were two openings.  With great drama, he placed a head of cabbage in the top opening and proceeded to cleave it in half when the super sharp blade dropped.  Proving that it worked, he called for a volunteer from the audience.  We all responded with incredulity…..except for Harlan Remington!  His hand shot up in Gomer Pyle fashion!  As much as we tried to discourage this action, thinking about how if this went wrong the V.C. would have a great claim on their behalf, Harlan ran for the stage!

The blade was raised by a rope to the up and ready position.

Well this was going to be a short group date!

The magician placed Harlan’s head in the same top opening where the cabbage had been.  He then placed another cabbage in the lower of the two openings.

The accompanying drum roll was provided by the patrons as they pounded on the tables.

The blade fell and Harlan’s head, and half the cabbage fell into the waiting basket!

No, of course not!  the trick worked perfectly, and only the cabbage half fell into the basket!  Harlan returned to his seat to a great round of applause from the audience!

Lieutenant Nancy was beginning to appreciate the night life more and more, we could tell.

At this point, the highlight of the evening, we took her to “our bar!”

For my regular readers, this was Tan’s Hotel and the Blue Bird Bar at 71 & 73 Nguyen van Thoai Street.  Perfect, an ideal place for entertainment.  Groovy sounds & melodious music charming girls comfortable rooms well known band reasonable price quick service laundry the finest and most magnificent place of good living in Nguyen Van Thoai Street. (So said their business card)!

When we walked in, the place was already hopping, live band as promised and a packed house of American servicemen, mostly Air Force Photo and Air Force Air Police types.

Our tan uniforms stood out like sore thumbs, and the Lieutenant’s Silver Bar shone in the light of the disco ball rotating from the ceiling.  We were immediately seated by the Mama-san in a choice banquette seat near the dance floor. Drinks were had and shared, and pretty soon the girl I usually visited there pulled me aside.

“Who her?”

“Who?”

“Her, you know who!”

“Oh, her!  She my boss at work!”

“Her?”

“Yes, see the silver on her collar?  She an officer!”

“”She?  Your boss?  An officer?”

Her mind was completely blown!  The fact that an American woman could rise to the rank of officer and to be the supervisor of men was way beyond her belief level.

That is when it got interesting.

One of the guys in the “group date,” got called away when he found out that his Vietnamese girlfriend was about to give birth to their baby.  So long, Marc!  But before he left, he produced a Versamat Drive Chain bracelet and placed it on the lieutenant’s wrist.  While her attention was drawn elsewhere, Marc crimped the link closed that made it impossible for the bracelet to be removed without tools.  One of my previous posts talks about the significance of these bracelets.

Another guy “got lucky” with one of the Tea Girls and decided to stay downtown for the night.

Another guy we knew would bail, since he had a “:regular thing” going for him.

So here it is, near curfew, and the band is beginning to play “In A Gadda Da Vida” and it isn’t the tease before a break.  This is the time to get back to base before curfew!  I look around, and it is me and Lieutenant Nancy!  We head downstairs and grab a Hop-Tac back to the base.

Both of us are, well, a little wired from the night.  I don’t know about her, but I’ve had a drink or three, and as we are headed back to the base, I’m beginning to think that maybe Fate made this happen.  She seems happy, as am I.  As we approach the Main Gate of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the glare of the spotlights highlight her blonde hair, and her complexion is practically radiant!  The guards recognize the silver bar on her collar and pass the Hop-Tac onto the Base, heading for Officer Country.

At this point I, a two striper enlisted man, start to ask myself the age old question, “Should I kiss the girl on the first date?”

One side of the coin is a great love story….the other side is me staring at the plains of Kansas for a long time!

I’ll let you guess the ending!

CATCH-22

My lovely wife Patricia is taking a literature class, and one of the books she is reading is Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”

This is not her favorite read.  First of all, she cannot fathom men at war.  She has also mentioned that the book seems rather disjointed, and has no narrative.  Well, since she said this, I, also, started re-reading that book.  Now this is, like, my fourth time reading the book.  I read it a long time ago, while still in school, when I found it, well, strange.  I read it again after enlisting in the Air Force, where I found it scary.  I read it again toward the end of my enlistment, where I found it humorous.  Now I am reading it for the fourth time, and see it in a different light.

A lot has been written about this book.  Some very erudite articles by some very well learned people have been written about this book.  My take on this is that once a book becomes popular and part of the culture, too much examination raises stumbling blocks.  Having been in the Air Force for four years, my opinion is a lot simpler.  You meet so many people from so many different backgrounds of your own, and suddenly you realize that your own Sphere of Influence is quite small.  The people you meet stretch you mind, sometimes painfully, yet always leaving you with a greater understanding of the rest of the world, the world you’ve not seen.

This posting is a “Little Catch-22” of mine.  I’m going to go through my old scrapbook and talk about the people in the photos.  Four of these photos I’ve included in this post.  I’d have done more, but getting them out of the albums would have destroyed them.  These are, of course, all photos that were made back in the days of wet process photography!

Viet Friends 001Upper left is Marc Simon.  Marc, I believe, was from New York City.  Marc professed that after his time in the Air Force he was going to become a well-known Disc Jockey, and that his on-air name was going to be “Cram Nomis,” basically his name reversed.  As good as the Disc Jockey I knew in Baltimore name Johnny Walker, who was named after the drink!

Once Marc bought a very fancy dress shirt at the Base Exchange.  This was 1970, and the style was lots of ruffles on the cuffs and down the front of the shirt.  It was pale blue.  Naturally, we said that it was a style that the singer Tom Jones would fancy.  Well, with that, he said that after he changed into the shirt, we should shine the emergency spotlight on the door through which he entered to make the transition to “Tom Jones!”

Well, after he went through that door, several officers happened into the room we were in.  Well, what were we to do?  Whoever it was holding the spotlight turned it on as Marc came back into the room, wearing the shirt along with his jungle fatigue pants and boots, singing “It’s not unusual to fall in love, with anyone, it’s not unusual….”  Blinded by the spotlight, he realized that we were not appreciating his recital as he expected.  The light was doused, and he saw all the brass, and stood there like a deer in the headlights.

Fortunately, our officers totally dug the performance and cheered like the rest of us as Marc took a small bow and returned through the doorway to recover his “military composure!”

The second picture is of “Gunter,” who first name and rank escapes me as he was “SHORT” when I met him.  He is proudly wearing his “Short in Service” ribbon on his ear.  This means that he has less than ninety days in service before he resumes his civilian life.

The bottom left photo is one of my favorites.  Far left in an unidentified driver of a Cyclo, a motorcycle with an automobile bench seat mounted up front for passengers.  In the seat are Harlan Remington and Chester Minton.  Two people from two different worlds who seemed to be best friends.  Harlan was a true Farm Boy from the mid-west.  Chester was a true Southerner.  One was so easy-going and innocent and the other was a man of the world, who always knew just what was going on.

The bottom right photo shows, left to right, Buddy Rose, Mike Holland, and Roy Plaschert.  They are decked out in the gear we were supposed to don during an enemy attack.  Luckily, this was only needed, well, never!  Buddy and I became good friends, and we actually met later when we were both assigned to RAF Alconbury, England!  I actually introduced him to a lady whom he married.  I served as Best Man at their wedding!  Mike Holland went on R&R to Bangkok, Thailand, taking jewelry orders with him.  He actually found the ring I wanted for the price I wanted to pay at a jewelry shop just outside of his hotel.  I still have that ring.  Roy Plaschert I only knew as a fellow in our barracks who had a good knowledge of photographic gear and audio tape recording.

I could go on, God knows, but this is starting to ramble much like Catch-22, according to my wife.  But that brings me back to why I am writing this particular post.  Joseph Heller, while serving as a bombardier stationed on Corsica in 1944, used a fellow aviator named Francis Yohannan as his inspiration for the protagonist “Yossarian” in said book “Catch-22.”  Francis Yohannan was my Commanding Officer during my tour of duty in Vietnam!

During one of our “Commander’s Call” at TanSonNhut, someone actually asked, “Commander, were you a bombardier in WWII?”

“Did you know Joseph Heller?”

“Yes, I knew Heller.”

“Are you Yossarian?”

“This Commander’s Call is now over!”

Raucous laughter filled the room.

Airman of the Quarter?

Phil & Sue 001This may be one of the “heaviest” postings I’ve made so far.

But first, let me talk about the pictures!  That is me on the left, posing in front of my barracks at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Republic of Vietnam.  The barracks are two stories, open bay, in what was known as “The 1200 Area.”  This is the area that was over run by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive of 1968.  I was there much later, end of 1969 and most of 1970.

Notice the sandbags.  Obviously getting a bunk on the first floor, lower of the two bunks, was the safest.  Upstairs was least desirable, since you could not “sandbag” that high!  Actually, I had the best bunk.  First floor, upper bunk.  That way I got the breeze in the evening, and a closer position to the ceiling fans.  Does it seem that I  mention ceiling fans a lot?  At my end of the barracks you could find a small “day room” with television, soft chairs, and a refrigerator.  Very few used the ‘Fridge for food, since food has a very short life span if you didn’t keep your eyes open.  A lot of guys bought small refrigerators at the Base Exchange and kept them locked up near their bunks.  The great thing was, you could recoup your cost by selling it to someone else when you were getting “short!”

As an aside, long before the movie “Top Gun,” my nickname was “Iceman!”  Not because I was cool under fire, but it just seemed that I was the guy that always had ice for my drinks!  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  That refrigerator in the day room was not “self defrosting.”  The accumulation of ice inside the freezer was my secret of getting my “bourbon and ginger” cold!

Back to the story…

“Short.”  To be “short in country” meant that you had thirty days or less before you met your “DEROS”  DEROS…Date of Estimated Return from Overseas.  To be “short in service” meant that you had less than ninety days before you returned to your civilian life.  Someone who was “short in country” could be quite obnoxious, until YOU were “short” and had the chance to make the following comments……

In the base movie theater, calling to the Projectionist, “Is this a long movie?  I’m so SHORT I might miss the ending!”

Or at a meeting, “Is this going to be a long meeting, ’cause I don’t want to be rude and walk out since I’m SHORT!”

Or, in casual conversation, “I’m so SHORT I can sit on a dime and my feet wouldn’t touch the ground!”

Or, “Why are the urinals mounted so high?  Don’t they know that I’m SHORT!”

When you were short in country you were to drink a fifth of Seagram’s V.O., remove the ribbon from the bottle’s neck, and wear it on your uniform, to let everyone know that you were “SHORT!”  Officially this was not allowed, but no one ever said a word to anyone about this.  Now when you were short in Service, you drank a bottle of Bourbon Supreme and wore it’s neck ribbon with tassel for ninety days.  Again, no one gave you any grief for this infraction of the Uniform Code.

The young lady on the right of the picture is Sue, the Mama-san for our barracks.  As soon as you arrived at the barracks to find your bunk, Sue was there to tell you how it was going to be!  Sue was our housekeeper, our laundry lady, boot polisher, and the coordinator with the Tailor.  Yes, a tailor!  The issued jungle fatigues just didn’t fit our needs.  As you can see from my photos, the sleeves were cut off and hemmed, the jacket fitted, the trousers pegged and hemmed, and depending on what your job was, special pockets were installed that allowed the breast pocket flaps to lay flat.  My pocket was on the right side where by arm would conceal its presence.  It was designed to hold a small pair of scissors, and a few pens and markers that I used in the Photo Lab.  Oh, I forgot to mention that Sue was also our “fence” for the off base market. Certain items would become available in the Base Exchange that no one really wanted, but the local folk had a yen for.  No pun there, Vietnamese money was “Dong” and “Piaster,” or “P,” not yen!   In Saigon you could literally hold your dong in one hand and “P” in the other, and no one cared!  Sue ALWAYS knew when those Base Exchange items were available, and flat-out told us to buy them for her.  We were reimbursed, of course, with a small commission, determined by Sue.  We wondered how she managed to get this stuff off base, but it happened, I suppose!  All this service for a small monthly charge of five bucks!

Now that I’m warmed up, and I hope that you’re still with me, this is a story that needs telling.

It was a usual day in Vietnam, ninety-five degrees with ninety-five percent humidity, not a cloud in the sky.  Just sitting around in the Photo Lab waiting for the mission film to arrive for processing when our NCOIC enters and says, “Wujek, the Commander wants you to sit in on the Pilot’s Briefing this morning.  You got half an hour, get yourself over the Ops, and look sharp!”

Well, there was some hootin’ and hollerin’ at that, let me tell you!  There are a few reasons I could think of for my being called by name.  I worked in a section called “Select Print.”  Sometimes mission film came back and there was something on it worthy of enlarging to poster size for briefings.  I’ve made several of these, and thought maybe one of them might need me, the processor, to explain what seemed to be obvious on the print.

The more exciting thought was that I had finally made the exalted status of “Airman of the Quarter!”  I was told that you reached this pinnacle by keeping your nose clean, doing your job, and not getting into any sort of trouble.  Well, I guess I qualified for that.  The best part being named “Airman of the Quarter” was that your Wing Commander traditionally took you up in the back seat of his fighter (in this case an RF-4C Phantom) and kept you in the air until you lost your breakfast.  For some it was as easy as a take off, but for others (roller coaster fans, let’s say) it took some effort to “fill the bag!”  Well, I didn’t care, bring it on!  Again, traditionally, a photograph was taken of the Airman of the Quarter getting out of the plane proudly holding his barf bag!

I stood in the back of the briefing room and the meeting progressed.  About halfway through the colonel says “Is Airman Wujek in the room?”

“Sir, here Sir!”

“Remain after the briefing, Airman.  I have something to tell you.”

Well, now that changes things.  Bad news from home?  A jet ride seems out of the question now.

After the meeting, I walk up to the front of the room and present myself to my Wing Commander.  “Sir, Airman Wujek reports as ordered, Sir!”  This was accompanied by my best Hand Salute ever.

Having returned my salute, I dropped my hand and stood at attention.

“At ease, Airman,” he says, “do you know an Air Policeman named Sergeant Franks?”

—I’ve changed his name to protect me—

“Yes Sir.  He and some of his friends drink at the same bar we do.”

“Well, he’s been buying lots of Saigon Tea for one of the girls there.  He found out that she and you are shacking up off base.  He’s really pissed off.  We found out through Intelligence that he’s taken out a contract on your life.”

I’ve heard of this happening to others.  Not pretty.  The lower your rank, the sloppier the hit.  An officer was a valuable target, harder to get to, and usually was victim of a drive-by shooting.  An enlisted man like myself was not worth a bullet, and would be lucky if we were just knifed.

I guess I was starting to shake, since the Colonel put his hand on my should and said, “Look, he’s going to DEROS in two weeks, so just stay on base and you should be all right.  They can’t get to you here.”

I thanked him and returned to my duty station.  After work I hightailed it downtown to talk to Mai.  I explained the situation to her, and was surprised that instead of showing what I would have considered the appropriate emotional response, she started laughing!

“What’s so damned funny?”

“Well,” she began, “he pay motorcycle gang four dollar to have you cocky-dow,” slang for killed, pardon the spelling.  “But he no know that he pay that four dollar to MY BROTHER!  I pay him six dollar to forget about it!”

So there you are.  The cost of selling my life and buying it back comes to a total of ten dollars.

Rough start!

Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes

This is my good friend, Steve Downes, from Seekonk, Massachusetts.  Before I get into the details of this story, note the bracelet Steve is wearing on his right wrist.  It is a piece from the drive train of the Versamat Film Processor that we used in our Photo Lab.  It is stainless steel, and over time, the links got deformed and they had to be replaced.  These bracelets became a unique item that only Photo Recon People got to wear.  I still have mine, and wear it proudly.

One day Steve came up with an interesting idea.  Since we spent a lot of time downtown, and had to race back to the base to beat the curfew, wouldn’t it make sense to rent a place off base?

Before I had time to think this all through, Steve advised me that he knew of a villa downtown that had two available rooms, each with their own bathrooms and private entrances, available for pretty much a song.

Turns out that the two girls that we had been hanging with at the Bluebird (Tan’s Hotel Bar) had found this for us!

That afternoon we checked them out.  The villa was situated behind a tall metal fence.  It had a front yard, and the house itself was set back about five yards from the perimeter.  The Mama-san showed us the rooms.  I liked the one on the right side, and Steve took the one on the left.  My room was rather large, complete with ceiling fan (very important, mind you), a clothes wardrobe, double bed, and bathroom.  I assume that Steve’s room was the same.  The rent included laundry service for the bed linen.  The cleaning of the room was part of the rent, so for us, it was a “no brainer!”

The bathroom had no “throne!”  The shower was all-inclusive.  There were foot pads indicating where to stand and squat to do the main business of the day.  All waste products left the premises via the drain in the shower.

Our girlfriends liked the idea of a place downtown where they, too, could stay.  Mai immediately began making the place homey!  It was the first time in my life that I had to purchase bed skirts and pillow shams.  Up until then I had no idea what these things even were!

After a few days of bringing a few provisions downtown, we decided it was time to stay off base and see how our new bachelor flats would work out.  Steve was quite excited about this, and told me that we should leave out boots outside the door, so the Mama-san could have them polished for us to wear in the morning.  Sounded good to me.

The next morning I awoke to Steve screaming in the hallway.

His boots were missing!  The Mama-san had no idea where they were, nor did she realize that she was supposed to polish the boots for us.  Seems that was just something Steve imagined was part of the deal.

My boots were there.

Steve asked why my boots were not stolen.  Well, the good old Mama-san had the answer.  Steve had smaller feet.  My boots were a size 13W, and no Vietnamese thief had a use for booths that big!

But now the problem arose.  we needed to pass the Air Police Gate Guards in order to report for duty.  The Air Police asked no questions of anyone coming on base, no matter how soon it was after the gates were open, knowing full well that they most likely had spent the night off base, violating the curfew.

But Steve was “out of uniform,” a violation that had to be written up.  To make matters worse… he was wearing white socks, which stood out like, no pun intended, wind socks on an airfield!

Needless to say, he was called over and written up for a uniform violation.  To make matters worse, he was taken to the Air Police Headquarters.  I, of course, being a proper Airman, just eased on down the road and made my way to the Photo Lab.

There I had to tell his NCOIC where Steve was, and that he had to go there and get him released.  Bottom line was that no charges were filed, and I don’t think Steve even received anything more than a Verbal Reprimand for the incident.

The moral is, well, there could be many!  Wear black socks.  Keep your boots next to your bed.  Don’t “assume” that someone will take care of your boots.  Stay on base!  Yeah, right.

WHO “GETS” THE PISTOL?

Burn Detail 001     In the world of aerial photographic intelligence, anything with either a mission number or imagery, that includes blank film and paper, is considered classified.  That being said, bear in mind that we were not particularly concerned with “silver recovery” from our photo products.  Given the amount of film and paper we produced in the course of a month, a classified burn would eventually be in order.

Now this was quite a production. Remember that we were all lab based photo personnel, so anything that was considered even the least bit risky was pretty exciting.  When the room in which we secured classified burn material was full, word went out that a “Classified Burn” was needed.  This was not desirable duty.  We had to leave the air-conditioned comfort of our photo lab and drive to the burn area.  The entire round trip took up the better part of our duty day.

The officer in charge of the duty needed t have a Top Secret clearance, so that limited the selection.  The two enlisted men needed a Secret clearance,but that was no problem, since we handled Secret material on a daily basis, after all, we were in Photo Reconnaissance, duh!

A pickup truck with a covered bed was gotten from the Motor Pool, and that could be a story unto itself, but I’ll let it slide for now.

The truck is backed up to the door closest to the storage shelter.  Under the watchful eye of the officer, the material is loaded into the truck.  Stacked efficiently, allowing room for one of the enlisted men to ride guard on the way to the burn area.

At this point, my non-Air Force friends will begin the chuckle or even laugh out loud.  We had to be armed!  The three of us walked over to the weapons locker and presented our Weapons Cards (see earlier blog) to the Sergeant-in-Charge.  The officer was issued a revolver with five rounds…the hammer had to fall on an empty cylinder, for safety reasons.  I was handed one clip for the M-16, with eighteen rounds (see Weapons Card post).  For those not familiar with Jungle Fatigue trousers, there is a pocket within the left cargo pocket, secured by two buttons.  The cargo pocket itself has two buttons and a flap.  I had to show the officer that I was putting the clip in the inner pocket, secured the two buttons, then secured the cargo pocket with two buttons and that the flap lay flat for concealment.  Only then was I handed an M-16 that was shown to be cleared, that is, no bullet in the chamber.  The rifle, unloaded, weighed just under five pounds, but believe me, it seemed to weigh a ton!  The other Airman was issued a pack of matches, secured a rake and a shovel before heading back to the truck.

We drove for what seemed like a long time to us, so far that we saw the perimeter defensive positions manned by the Vietnamese.  There is a picture of one of these posted just below the first set of pictures.  The fellow on the left is Chester Minton, just having a bit of fun unrolling a seemingly endless amount of film to be destroyed.  The photos I am sharing are from two different classified burns.  Minton and the other fellow, Sgt. Burgess, are both enlisted, as I was, but the officer requested that he not be photographed on either of the burn details.

It was impressed upon us that this was a serious mission.  Our pilots and GIB’s (Guys In Back) also known as Navigators or Radio Operators, had put their lives and the RF-4C Phantom on the line to get this intel, and the enemy could put together information that could harm us all.  Basically, a little bit of info here, a little bit of info there, and pretty soon there would be lives lost.

With the fire finally burning well, we were able to look at our surroundings.  We were so far out, I had no idea which way was home.  Luckily, the guy with the bars (and the pistol) had the truck keys!

Off to the right was a sailor, all by himself, carefully burning pages taken from a sea bag, one at a time, over a small fire.  Insignificant compared to the bonfire we were tending.  Looking closer, we noticed that we was alone, and all that he had for defense was a small pistol in a holster clipped to his belt.

Drifting over to him, we asked about his weapon.  Turned out it was a .32 caliber automatic, and it looked like it belonged in a lady’s handbag, or in a chamois leather holster under the tuxedo jacket of James Bond!

Feeling cocky, being in the Air Force and all that, we told him that if any VC (we used other slang words, that are no longer considered politically correct to use) were to come at us, he could join us, since we had the M-16, and all that.  No need to tell him that we only had eighteen rounds for the rifle and five for the pistol!

Looking at us like we were complete idiots, he simply said, “If anyone comes for this stuff, he can have it.  The pistol is for me.”  Then he pointed two fingers to his temple and made a “pow” sound with his mouth.

The drive back to the Photo Lab was in total silence.  The officer with the pistol just looked straight ahead.  The clip with the bullets in my left inner pocket (secured by four buttons and two flaps) never seem so damned far away.

The pistol.  Five bullets…two…two….and one left.